Music is So Flippin’ Hard: Adversity Training for Musicians

We have spent thousands of hours in practice rooms and countless hours alone composing, practicing, and pursuing funding.  Music is hard. But we can use the adversity training idea to fully embrace the challenge that music, and the surrounding industry, brings to our lives.

Written By

Brian Chin

Image of a tree extremely bent from harsh winds

Adversity, creative commons image by Carlos Donderis created for

If you are reading this, chances are that you are in this music game for the long haul and are dedicated to advancing the cause of music and art. Each concert we produce is a battle on our own frontline with our own increasing expectations and with an ever more discerning audience that will likely be anticipating a CD-level performance. Every piece we write is a wrestling match with the achievements of our predecessors, our heroes, and our own internal struggles. We have spent thousands of hours in practice rooms and countless hours alone composing, practicing, and pursuing funding.  Music students realize the daunting task of potentially investing decades of work attempting to elevate their talent to a world-class level while remaining cognizant of the competitive job market in a fast changing industry.  Music is hard.

Yet we do persevere. Maybe we land a big job, start pulling down big commissions, or have a series of successful events that gather attention. Even after we demonstrate that we are artistically solvent or financially “making-it,” we musicians usually only become that much more aware of how much we still have to learn, and how deep the layers go in fully understanding music.  It’s an ongoing struggle.  And I say that this is a good thing.

Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has done some amazing work studying the power of perspective and attitude on achievement and performance.  In her book Mindset, Dweck describes two types of attitudes that permeate our daily lives and directly affect our learning and happiness.  People of all ages generally exhibit either a fixed or a growth mindset when they are learning or are presented with a problem. To oversimplify, a fixed-mindset person believes we are born with certain gifts that we have and therefore are judged by others as being only as good as what we can outwardly demonstrate. As failure and success are overt reflections of inner worth, this mindset often leads to general disengagement and a reluctance to risk learning or trying something new and/or difficult. Meanwhile, a growth mindset believes that we can always improve with hard work and determination. Here challenge and difficulty become opportunities to learn and grow and the risk of failure is seen as a necessary part of the process that should be feared no more than we feared learning to walk.  While we all carry both these mindsets within us—and we do have the ability to skip back and forth as we encounter different tasks and challenges—the habits we develop early in our lives tend to keep us predominantly rooted around one mindset.  These are powerful attitudes that have dramatic effects in our lives.

For example, in one of Dweck’s most cited studies, the reactions of primary school-age children were observed as they encountered puzzles that were deliberately too hard for their age level.  It was noted that students who revealed a fixed mindset said things such as “this is too hard” or “I’m not good at puzzles,” and quickly deflected or disengaged with the activity.  Students who revealed a growth mindset said phrases like, “wow, I didn’t expect to learn something today” and “this puzzle is fun and is really challenging me.”  These growth-mindset students were engaged with the activity more intently and for longer periods of time than their fixed-mindset peers. Not surprisingly, when they checked back in with the same students years later, the kids with the growth mindset were significantly outperforming the fixed-mindset students.

The big take-away here is that we can choose to alter our mindset and can practice bringing a growth mindset to our unique challenges making music and art. I believe that this is the key to our ability to improve as lifelong learners and to our continual development as musicians.

Anecdotally I know this to be true by watching my own peers and students over years. This past fall we even ran a study at Seattle Pacific University through the Center for Talent and the Arts (website launch in Spring 2016) during which my students and I accidentally discovered a powerful connection between positive attitude (growth mindset) and music performance.  This study was originally set up to test the effectiveness of improvisation on learning a new musical task.  The results for our original intended study ended up being inconclusive; however, it was observed by the research assistants that subjects with positive attitudes (i.e. subjects that were enthusiastic and saw the fun and challenge in the activity) performed better.  When cross-referencing the data for this variable, we found a clear and overwhelming connection between the ability to learn in music and a positive growth-based mindset.

In my own life outside of music, my partner and I have made a deliberate choice to actively introduce additional adversity into the lives of our two young boys. We live in a relatively affluent neighborhood in Seattle and attend the neighborhood school where the majority of the children have two loving, engaged, and professional parents. In fact, many cynics might argue that the majority of parents in our neighborhood are a bit too engaged, are generally overeducated, kind of entitled, and could potentially create children who grow to expect the privileges they inherited. While children need a safe and compassionate community to thrive, we also believe strongly in the values of self-reliance and determination that are developed by learning to overcome adversity. One of the ways that we build in extra challenge and strive to increase the level of difficulty our boys encounter is through travel. Occasionally a few days on a beach is wonderful, but we tend to do that while exploring internationally, often in third world countries, which is coincidently also a reality of my musician bank account.  Not having a clear itinerary, foraging for food, keeping to a small budget, not knowing the language, going without the comforts of our posh Western existence (like refrigerators, hot showers, and computer screens) all while surrounded by supportive family, positive people, and compassionate messaging helps to teach the boys (and us) about grit and, more importantly, the importance of keeping a flexible and positive attitude.  We call it adversity training.

I think that we can use this adversity training idea to fully embrace the challenge that music, and the surrounding industry, brings to our lives.  Without sounding Pollyannaish about the realities of the music business or the difficulty of our craft, I believe that with the right perspective, we can start to see each challenge as an opportunity to make us better musicians—or at least help make our music unique. Through years of hard work and determination, I am starting to see the struggle of music making differently and am grateful I am in a field with such growth possibilities.